Yes, we will be fully healed of our bodily and mental disabilities in the resurrection. Actually, that is too easy an answer. Why? Because it is strictly speaking impossible to be ‘disabled’ in heaven. Because ‘disability’ has come to refer to a problem in social relationships, where we fail to care for one another as we ought. ‘Disability’ refers to lack of access, participation, or integration in the community on account of physical barriers or cultural prejudice.The ‘social’ understanding of disability is found in various World Health Organization (WHO) documents, and is analyzed by e.g. Gerold Stucki, Alarcos Cieza, and John Melvin, “The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health [ICF]: A Unifying Model for the Conceptual Description of the Rehabilitation Strategy,” Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine 39 (2007): 279. Among theologians who discuss this model, see Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008) 23–26; Deborah Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 27; and Miguel Romero, “The Goodness and Beauty of Our Fragile Flesh: Moral Theologians and Our Engagement with ‘Disability,” Journal of Moral Theology 6.2 (2017) 222.
In heaven, where we will no longer see through a glass darkly, but see God face to face, any limits to our blessedness will certainly not arise from prejudice or other social sins. So there cannot be ‘disability’ in heaven.
Impairment Rather Than Disability
So I should restate my view: we will be fully healed of our bodily and mental impairments in the resurrection. In the rest of this paper, I will focus on impairments, which is what we’re talking about if we accept an account of human nature. For what constitutes an impairment is determined by the capacities proper to human nature. By participating in the goods of human nature, and thus fulfilling the potentialities that are characteristic of their species, human beings live according to their nature, that is, flourish as human beings. An impairment is a lack or defect from that which is appropriate to a human being as a member of the human species, according to the nature and perfectibility of that species. For example, if I somewhat or fully lack the sense of sight, that is an evil for me. In this context, an ‘evil’ is a lack or privation of that which is appropriate for me to possess as a member of the human species. It’s being an evil in this sense is true regardless of whether I experience it as an evil in an existential or psychological manner. The point is not how I or anyone else ‘feels’ about my condition of myopia. It is an evil in this sense regardless of whether my possessing glasses or contact lenses mitigates this evil so that I do not even usually notice my impairment. To call my myopia or other vision deficiencies an evil is to make a metaphysical claim about human nature, namely that the sense of sight is a capacity proper to my nature as a human being. On the other hand, impaired sight or the complete lack of sight is not an evil for some other species, such as bats or worms, who are equipped by nature with other capacities by which to navigate the world.
Furthermore, on the account I want to provide, in discussing true human flourishing, it is a mistake to focus primarily on bodily and/or mental impairments. In the same way that human flourishing involves participation in all the goods of human nature, so too we can be, and in fact all are impaired in varying degrees in ways beyond the physical and mental. We are also all in varying ways and degrees e. g. impaired emotionally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. True human flourishing both on earth and in the resurrection is wholistic – a perfection of body and soul.
During 2000 years of Christian history, theologians have typically held this teleological conception of what constitutes (metaphysical) goodness in human beings as a species.A teleological conception of goodness and flourishing at a species level (and the resultant notions of illness and impairment) is not unique to members of the human species, but is applicable to members of all living species. What constitutes an illness or impairment is always relative to a normative view of the good (i.e., the flourishing) of a particular species. While a theological account of human flourishing incorporates the above account of human nature and flourishing, it also goes beyond such accounts. For any theological account of complete human flourishing must incorporate our ultimate end (i.e. telos) of friendship or union with God in the resurrection. For our ultimate perfection as human beings is our state in glory, traditionally called blessedness or beatitude, wherein human creatures flourish in a way attainable only as a gift of God’s grace. This grace is necessary in part because God’s ordained destiny for human beings in glory is a flourishing beyond the capacity of unaided or untransformed human nature.What constitutes an illness or impairment is always relative to a normative view of the good (i.e., the flourishing) of a particular species. Thus, understanding our glorified human condition in the resurrection is essential for an adequate theological account of human nature and human impairment, because theologically, the possibilities for our flourishing or perfection can only be grasped by contemplating the flourishing of the human creature in the fullness of God’s glory.
Returning to the question of earthly impairments, it is essential to recognize that different kinds of impairments are of radically different significance in the eyes of God. While impairments of the body can only impact earthly flourishing, impairments of the soul impede both our earthly flourishing and the possibility of our flourishing in the resurrection. For example, a moral or spiritual impairment may lead a human being to reject their ultimate heavenly telos. Thus, it is a grave error to follow our cultural norms concerning impairment, namely that if my impairments are less publicly noticeable, I am somehow then not in fact impaired. While human beings were not impaired in our pre-fallen state, and will not be impaired in the resurrection, all of us as human beings in this ‘time between the times’ are impaired. Being impaired is the reality of being a creature in a fallen world. The fact that we tend to focus on bodily and mental impairments may say more about us and our culture than we realize.
Another way to distinguish corporeal impairments from moral and spiritual impairments is to distinguish two different senses in which they are evils. A corporeal impairment is an evil in the sense of being a lack of some good appropriate to the species. But a moral impairment or evil is not merely the privation of a good, but arises from our active choices of wrongdoing. It is our misuse of our human freedom and will. We will evil acts because we have disordered desires. As Saint Thomas puts it:
The immoral act receives its form, is constituted in its kind, precisely by reference to an evil end. Here the contrast with natural evil is instructive. In the order of nature entities suffer evil when they fail to obtain their respective ends, yet such failure can only arise as a per accidens side effect of the entity’s inclination to its proper end. In this respect it is true to say “evil cannot have a per se cause.” In the realm of moral action, by contrast, the wrongful (evil) act is precisely what the evil agent aims at; this is what constitutes his objective.Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement q. 75, a. 1.
Yes, God providentially permits bodily and mental impairments to exist, but they do not have per se a cause. They are not a manifestation of moral evil. In other words, there is no ‘point’ per se to them. They are the result of sin, of original sin. As for our individual sin, they are, as noted above, responsible for our far more significant impairments, our moral and spiritual impairments. Bodily or corporeal impairments are evils only in the metaphysical sense, that is, an evil as a privation of a good appropriate to us as human beings. So again, there’s no point to such impairments, which all of us have in different ways and to different degrees. It is the reality for all living creatures in a fallen world that our bodies are subject to decay and death.
Now, while there is no point to—and thus no justifying the reality of—privation or evil, it is also true that I may come to recognize God bringing specific goods out of my various impairments. However, for me to recognize such goods and to be able to be grateful for them is typically an act of faith in God’s providence. Such faith also requires me to acknowledge that God’s providence is often inscrutable,Such faith also requires me to acknowledge that God’s providence is often inscrutable, and at times draws from us profound sadness, anger, and lament. and at times draws from us profound sadness, anger, and lament. But wanting God’s sometimes inscrutable providence to be otherwise is wanting to be God, rather than God’s creature.
Is there a distinction between ‘healing’ and ‘cure’? Absolutely, a huge distinction. In Scripture, to put it simply, the notions of ‘healing’ and ‘salvation’ are interchangeable, basically the same term. In Scripture, the consistent focus is on our serious impairments, i.e., our moral and spiritual impairments. Those are the impairments that kill not (only) the body, but the soul. In the gospels, Jesus is always concerned with healing rather than curing. In Jesus’ miracles, the healing of the body is a sign of moral and spiritual healing, which points to eternal life, our potential future life in the resurrection. A cure, which points to a bodily remedy or improvement, is of course a good thing. However, if it does not also direct us to a holistic improvement, to a spiritual healing, it is only a temporary and inadequate measure in relation to our deepest needs and longings. Unlike curing, healing addresses the questions endemic to the human condition, those posed to us by our decline, decrepitude, and death.For a fuller development of these themes, see John Berkman, “Are Persons with Profound Intellectual Disabilities Sacramental Icons of Heavenly Life? Aquinas on Impairment,” Studies in Christian Ethics,” 26.1(2013) 83–96, and John Berkman and Robyn Boére, “St. Thomas Aquinas on Impairment, Natural Goods, and Human Flourishing”, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 20:2 (Summer 2020) 1–18.
There is another difference between the curing of corporeal impairments of body and mind, and the healing of our moral and spiritual impairments, and this difference pertains specifically to the resurrection. In the resurrection, all traces of original sin will be removed, and thus all bodily and mental impairments will be removed. We will thus realize the perfection appropriate to our created nature as members of the natural kind (i.e., species) known as human beings. However, with regards to our moral and spiritual impairments, while we may be forgiven for our sins, each of us is in a different place on our journey to God, and our character embodies different degrees of holiness, different degrees of friendship and intimacy with God. In the resurrection, whatever degree of spiritual and moral development we reached in our life, whatever degree we have been receptive to God’s grace and love, will be how we shall remain morally and spiritually in the resurrection. The more we have been receptive to God’s bountiful gifts of faith, hope, charity, fear, courage, understanding, wisdom, meekness, gentleness, and self-control, the more we shall shine in glory. The more we have reflected the love of God in our earthly lives, the more we will be able to reflect God’s light and commune in intimacy with God in the resurrection.
There is perhaps one exception to the overcoming of our bodily and mental impairments in this life referred to by Augustine and many other great spiritual writers:
I do not know why this is so, but the love we bear for the blessed martyrs makes us desire to see in the kingdom of heaven the marks of the wounds which they received for Christ’s name; and it may be that we shall indeed see them. For this will not be a deformity, but a badge of honour, and the beauty of their virtue—a beauty which is in the body, but not of the body—will shine forth in it . . . It may be that, in that world to come, it will be fitting for them to exhibit some marks of their glorious wounds, still visible in their immortal flesh . . . While, therefore, no blemishes which the body has sustained will be present in the world to come, we are nonetheless not to deem these marks of virtue blemishes, or call them such.Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Book 22.19.
On this account, those bodily and mental impairments that we have received in witness to Christ will remain with us in heaven, but instead of impeding the divine light shining through us, they will sparkle as spiritual jewels adorning our bodies.
So how should this understanding of what counts as an ‘impairment’ in the resurrection shape how we see others in our midst, particularly in the church? To the extent we ‘see’ physical or mental impairments as the only or most important impairments, we reveal that we are captured by human wisdom, by worldly wisdom, rather than divine wisdom. As we learn divine wisdom, we come to see that those mortally impaired are those whose impairments are moral and spiritual.
Irena Metzler, an historian of disability in the Middle Ages, concludes her book by arguing that in the medieval world, there was no ‘disability,’ that medieval societies simply did not socially marginalize those with bodily or mental impairments.See Irena Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Impairment during the Middle Ages, c. 1100-c. 1400 (Abington, UK: Routledge, 2006). Furthermore, in recognizing the far greater importance of moral and spiritual impairments, they rightly granted much greater authority to doctors of the soul than to doctors of the body. Today, the life of the church will be transformed once we can come to see, be attracted to, and cherish the greatness of a person’s soul, as understood in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Once that happens, as a Christian community we will be pilgrims on the way to living out the ‘beatitudes’ of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the heart and soul of the way of Jesus.